IT is important in appraising the most interesting news at this turn of the year to recognize that political street rioting and demonstrations in Russia and China are different in nature, spring from different motives, and head in different directions. The rioting that made news in Alma-Ata was an outburst of anti-imperialism. The street demonstrations that have enlivened half a dozen Chinese cities and fascinated the outside world are by Chinese students yearning, so far as we outsiders can tell, for more, not less, of the reforms they have been getting since 1979 from Deng Xiaoping.
The first reflects a desire to break away from the iron rule of Moscow over the Kazakh peoples. It proves that the Kazakhs are still not entirely reconciled to life under Russian rule, any more than are the other minorities that live under Moscow's power. This sort of thing can break out all around the rim of the inner Russian empire (inner being distinct from the outer empire made up of the nominally independent satellite states such as Poland and Czechoslovakia).
The best China-watchers in the West and the best Western observers inside China are all groping for a better understanding of just why the students at the main universities of China, particularly in Shanghai and Peking, should choose this particular turn of the year to take to the streets, not once or twice, but repeatedly, to make known an unsatisfied yearning for change at the heart of their own Chinese government.
Could it be that the movement was inspired or promoted by a faction inside the Chinese government? But if so, by which faction? Did the conservatives (by Chinese standards) do it to try to discredit Mr. Deng's reforms, or by Deng's supporters to strengthen his hand against the conservatives who think his reforms have been going too fast?
One theory trotted forth in the Chinese press is that the movement was inspired from Taiwan. This is probably the least plausible of all current theories.
Most plausible is that the students themselves have become aware, almost through political osmosis, of differences of opinion inside the government in Peking, where we know that maneuverings are under way aimed at a meeting of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party which is due in the fall and at which the eventual post-Deng leadership of the party may take decisive shape.
Mr. Deng himself is obviously trying to arrange things so that when he must retire his reforms will be carried forward by people he can trust. If he can set things up to his satisfaction while he is still in charge, he might be able to retire in fact and take life a little easier. Can the mold thus be set?
The students have become an element in the maneuverings over the future direction of China. Whether this was planned from on high (the way Mao Tse-tung planned and unleashed the so-called Cultural Revolution) is perhaps unimportant. The demonstrations have taken place and have sharpened the discussion among all in China over whether it is possible for China to have economic reform without political reform as well.
The students seem to be saying that political pluralism must come if economic modernization is to continue. This could be a glimmer of a struggle ahead for China between modernization and rule by a single communist party.
There was none of this in the rioting at Alma-Ata, but there was a touch of the same in the one-man rebellion of Soviet scientist Andrei Sakharov. Moscow's reformist Mikhail Gorbachev seems to have recognized that to achieve his own campaign for modernization of the Soviet economy he must have the talent of such men as Dr. Sakharov. Sakharov's dissident political views are to be tolerated as the price of enlisting him and his friends and colleagues in the scientific community in the national drive for economic revitalization.
So let it be noted that in both the Soviet Union and China those who are trying to glimpse a better future for their countries are thinking in terms of more freedom for the individual.
Not so long ago radicals and revolutionaries were dreaming of and preaching communism. The future was to belong to communism. But what might come after communism? No one was asking that question 50 years ago.
That is now the question in both the USSR and China, the world's largest communist countries. These events prove that Stalinist-style communism belongs to the past, not to the future.